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Navajo Code Talkers: A Guide to First-Person Narratives in the Veterans History Project

Navajo language speakers were recruited by the Marine Corps during World War II to send secret communications. This guide features a selection of oral histories available online that document the experiences of these veterans.

Introduction

The Veterans History Project (VHP) at the Library of Congress collects and preserves the firsthand interviews and narratives of United States military veterans from World War I through the present. This includes collections relating to Navajo Code Talker veterans. Comprised primarily of oral histories, these collections document the personal stories of individual Code Talkers.

This guide will introduce VHP's holdings related to the Navajo Code Talkers. VHP is a public participation program, and as such, this guide is not meant to be an exhaustive history of the Code Talkers or the events of World War II, but rather to help you explore VHP's related collection materials, to assist users in navigating our online database, and provide some ideas for further research.

Please select the menu option Code Talker Profiles on the left to view biographical summaries and oral history interviews from the Code Talkers who have participated in the Veterans History Project.

Background

Marines hit three feet of water as they leave their LST to take the beach at Cape Gloucester
Official U.S. Marine Corps photograph. The Marines land--Marines hit three feet of water as they leave their LST to take the beach at Cape Gloucester. December 26, 1943. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

While a lack of official records has made it difficult to determine exact numbers, it is estimated that more than 400 Navajo men served as Code Talkers in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Second World War. Marine Corps officials and later historians have credited their work as a significant factor in the U.S. victory in the Pacific.

During World War I, Army units pioneered the use of Ho-Chunk, Choctaw, Cherokee, Comanche, Osage, and Sioux Code Talkers to send secure voice communications based on their Native languages. The Army again used Native American Code Talkers during World War II on an ad hoc basis, wherein different units formed Code Talker cadres when they had a sufficient number of Native speakers from the same tribe. This included a group of seventeen Comanche Code Talkers with the 4th Infantry Division, as well as a group of seventeen Chippewa and Oneida Code Talkers with the 32nd Infantry Division.1 A Congressional Gold Medal issued in 2013 recognized the contributions of Code Talkers from 33 different tribes. The Marine Corps' Navajo Code program was the most systematic and extensive of these programs, and by the end of the war all six Marine Divisions employed Navajo Code Talkers.

In the early weeks and months of the war in the Pacific, the Japanese had shown an aptitude for intercepting and decrypting radio messages. The existing encryption methods the Americans relied on were also painfully slow and tedious. The idea to use the Navajo language as the basis of a secure radio code was proposed to the Marine Corps by Philip Johnston, a veteran of World War I who had spent much of his childhood on the Navajo Reservation where his parents worked as missionaries. Though Johnston may have had the initial idea to create a Navajo code, the Code itself was designed and implemented by the first cadre of 29 Code Talkers. These "First Twenty-Nine" -- with little formal cryptographic training -- devised a code built on word substitution - common military terms were assigned a Navajo code word, and each letter of the English alphabet was also assigned at least one code word so that other terms could be spelled out using the Code.

The Navajo Code provided a huge boost in efficiency to the Marine Corps in an hour of need. A formal training school was established at Camp Elliott, California to train new Code Talkers. A three-line message that would have taken 30 minutes to send using the old encryption methods could be encoded, transmitted, and decoded by Navajo Code Talkers in 20 seconds. The Code consisted of designated Navajo terms for each letter in the Roman alphabet, as well as for many military terms. Becoming a Code Talker meant memorizing more than 400 terms, and trainees could not take notes or write anything down. Many of the Code Talkers would later reflect that the traditions of oral history and storytelling that they grew up with helped them with this massive memorization challenge.

Marines from the 4th Marine Division disembark from a landing craft on the beach at Iwo Jima
Official U.S. Marine Corps photograph. A wave of charging Fourth Division Marines begin an attack from the beach at Iwo Jima, on D-Day as another boatload of battle-tested veterans is disgorged on the beach by an invasion craft. February 19, 1945. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Once the concept of the Navajo Code had been proven, the Code Talkers were pushed through training and out to their units as fast as possible. Some of the original 29 Code Talkers would participate in the latter stages of the Guadalcanal campaign in late 1942. Code Talkers were usually assigned to the communications sections at the battalion, regimental, and division headquarters levels, and were employed to coordinate operations between friendly units and to call for fire support from artillery or aircraft. The Code Talkers were all trained as Marines and as general service communications specialists, so when not sending coded messages they often performed general communications work or served as riflemen. The Code Talkers were often performing other duties until they were notified that an "Arizona Message" or "New Mexico Message" needed to be sent - the coded terms used to indicate that a message needed to be sent in the Navajo Code.

After Guadalcanal, the Code Talkers would participate in all of the Marine Corps' major operations in the Pacific theater. By the Battle of Iwo Jima in February of 1945, the Code Talkers had proven themselves invaluable, to the point that Marine officers had become reliant on them to coordinate their operations. Major Howard Connor, who was the 5th Marine Division’s communications officer during the fight for Iwo Jima, stated that, "the entire operation was directed by Navajo code…. During the first forty-eight hours, while we were landing and consolidating our shore positions, I had six Navajo radio nets operating around the clock. In that period alone they sent and received over eight hundred messages without an error."

The experiences of the Code Talkers are remarkable, in part due to the discrimination that Native Americans faced before, during, and after the war. Many of them were forced to attend government boarding schools as children, where they were required to speak only in English. Navajos were denied the right to vote in Arizona until 1948, in New Mexico until 1953, and in Utah until 1957 -- a form of discrimination which persisted despite the fact that the Snyder Act of 1924 granted U.S. citizenship to all Native Americans born in the U.S. They were frequently denied service at hotels and restaurants when traveling outside the Navajo reservation. After the war, there was initially no way for them to use many of their veterans' benefits on the reservation.

The Second Battalion, Twenty-Seventh Marines land on Iwo Jima
Official U.S. Marine Corps photograph. The Second Battalion, Twenty-Seventh Marines land on Iwo Jima. February 19, 1945. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

For twenty-five years, the Code Talkers’ heroics were hidden from public view. The program was classified as "top secret" upon creation, and when the war ended the Code Talkers were warned not to tell anyone the specifics of their work with the Code. It was not until 1968 -- when new technical encryption methods made the Navajo Code obsolete -- that it was declassified.

Recognition then began to arrive for the role that the Code Talkers had played in World War II. In 1971, President Richard Nixon sent a letter of appreciation and congratulations to the Navajo Tribal Council. For the Bicentennial Parade in Washington, D.C. in 1976, Code Talker veterans walked at the front of the procession. President Ronald Reagan declared in 1982 that August 14th would henceforth be recognized as "National Navajo Code Talkers Day." Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico introduced the Honoring the Navajo Code Talkers Act in Congress in 2000, an Act that was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The passage of this Act meant that in 2001, the surviving members of the “first twenty-nine” Code Talkers who created the code were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush. The other Code Talker veterans who were not part of the first twenty-nine were awarded the Congressional Silver Medal.

The Code Talkers' achievements have made them an inspiration to people of all backgrounds, and many of them took on leadership roles after the war, where they have served as role models for younger Americans. Thomas H. Begay was a senior administrator for the Bureau of Indian Affairs who helped many Navajos find work and educational opportunities. Wilfred E. Billey served for more than 40 years as a teacher, guidance counselor, and high school principal who helped countless students to find their way in life. Teddy Draper, Sr., Albert Smith and John Kinsel also worked as educators, while Keith Little worked as an English teacher at the Intermountain Indian School in Utah while he was in college, before becoming an executive in the logging industry. Thomas Claw worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a water master -- in this role he was responsible for the irrigation of 80,000 acres of farmland. Samuel Billison earned a PhD in education while working as a teacher, principal, and administrator, and also served on the Navajo Nation Council. Dan Akee and Roy O. Hawthorne both became spiritual leaders as Christian ministers, and Samuel Holiday became a traditional medicine man, all driven by a desire to assist others in finding healing and comfort. Roy Hawthorne, Samuel Holiday, Merril Sandoval, and Samuel "Jesse" Smith all also served as law enforcement officers after their time in the military.

The majority of the Code Talkers featured in this research guide became involved with the Navajo Code Talkers Association, an organization dedicated to educating the public on the role the Code Talkers played in World War II and preserving their legacy. They have traveled around the country and around the world to share their experiences and inform people about the history of the Code Talkers.

Their stories are noteworthy not only for their courage as Marines during America's bloodiest war, but also for the compassion, leadership, and dedication to continued service to others that so many of them displayed after the war. Their success is an example of how American society's diversity is a source of strength -- a language that government- and church-run boarding schools had tried to eliminate ended up saving countless American lives on the blood-soaked battlefields of the Pacific.

Notes

  1. William C. Meadows, The Comanche Code Talkers of World War II (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002), 14-34. Back to text